Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

State of Polar Sea Ice – April 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain


Global polar sea ice area in April 2013 tracked back to climatological normal conditions (1979-2009) from the temporary surplus the previous two months.  This follows January and February’s improvement from September 2012′s significant negative deviation from normal conditions (from -2.5 million sq. km. to +750,000 sq. km.).  While Antarctic sea ice gain was slightly more than the climatological normal rate following the austral summer, Arctic sea ice loss was slightly more than normal during the same period.

Arctic Sea Ice

According to the NSIDC, sea ice creation during April measured 1.5 million sq. km.  This melt rate was approximately normal for the month, so April′s extent remained below average again.  Instead of measuring near 15 million sq. km., April 2013′s average extent was only 14.37 million sq. km., a 630,000 sq. km. difference.  In terms of annual maximum values, 2013′s 15.13 million sq. km. was 733,000 lower than normal.

Barents Sea (Atlantic side) ice once again fell from its climatological normal value during the month after remaining low during most of the winter.  Kara Sea (Atlantic side) ice temporarily recovered from its wintertime low extent and reached normal conditions, which is also different from spring 2012′s conditions, before 2013 melt caused the extent to fall below normal conditions again.  The Bering Sea (Pacific side), which saw ice extent growth due to anomalous northerly winds in 2011-2012, saw similar conditions in December 2012 through February 2013.  This caused anomalously high ice extent in the Bering Sea again this winter.  As it did previously this winter, an extended negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation allowed cold Arctic air to move far southward and brought warmer than normal air to move north over parts of the Arctic.  The AO’s tendency toward its negative phase in recent winters is related to the lack of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean in September each fall.  Warmer air slows the growth of ice, especially ice thickness.  This slow growth allows more melt than normal during the subsequent summer, which helps establish and maintain negative AO phases.  This is a destructive annual cycle for Arctic sea ice.

In terms of climatological trends, Arctic sea ice extent in April has decreased by 2.3% per decade, the lowest of any calendar month.  This rate is closest to zero in the late winter/early spring months and furthest from zero in late summer/early fall months.  Note that this rate also uses 1979-2000 as the climatological normal.  There is no reason to expect this rate to change significantly (much more or less negative) any time soon, but increasingly negative rates are likely in the foreseeable future.  Additional low ice seasons will continue.  Some years will see less decline than other years (e.g., 2011) – but the multi-decadal trend is clear: negative.  The specific value for any given month during any given year is, of course, influenced by local and temporary weather conditions.  But it has become clearer every year that humans have established a new climatological normal in the Arctic with respect to sea ice.  This new normal will continue to have far-reaching implications on the weather in the mid-latitudes, where most people live.

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of March 24, 2013:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20130325_zpsc64e9758.png

Figure 1UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

Here is the similar image from May 10, 2013:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20130510_zps95770d27.png

Figure 2UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130510.

The early season melt is evident in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea,  the Baffin/Newfoundland Bay area, the Barents Sea, and the Kara Sea.  Ice finished forming in these regions at the latest point in the winter.  As such, sea ice is the thinnest there and most susceptible to weather and solar heating.  Weather and ocean currents are also able to transport this ice around and out of the Arctic, as this animation demonstrates.  Currents will continue to transport sea ice out of the Arctic, after which the ice melts at lower latitudes.

Many people questioned the overall health of the Arctic ice pack earlier this year when images (like the one below) and video documented extensive cracks in the ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  A fellow blogger (and new author!) emailed me about this phenomenon and I wrote that I would blog my thoughts on the topic.  As Andrew Freedman wrote, “According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., this fracturing event was related to a storm that passed over the North Pole on Feb. 8, 2013, creating strong off-shore ice motion. The event is unusual but not unheard of, as there were similar patterns in early 2011 and 2008. However, the NSIDC said the fracturing this time is more extensive.”  The worry is the extent and size of the cracks and leads as well as the early calendar date at which they are all appearing – up to weeks before normal.

I found this article on the topic and agree with Greg Laden, the author.  The cracks and leads might be a big deal or they might not.  We will have to wait until the minimum sea ice extent occurs in September before we issue judgment.  The scientifically sound course of action would be to wait until early cracks appeared in multiple seasons and then see what the range of response later in the year is.  For all we know, the cracks could allow for even more ice to form in March than normal and delay the onset of melting.  It strikes me as scientifically unsound and even irresponsible to conjecture about the existence and effect of processes, which we do not understand well.  If scientists crow about upcoming devastating Arctic sea ice loss this year and reality doesn’t conform to their wishes, how much credibility with the public do they engender?  I think observers should stay patient and discuss the phenomena and effects we do understand – there is plenty of material with which to work!

 photo Arctic-sea-ice-sat-pic-20130312_zpsd8fe90e9.jpg

Figure 3 – NOAA AVHRR infrared picture of Arctic sea ice on 20130312.

The following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of April demonstrates the relative decline in ice health with time:

 photo SeaIceVolumeAnomaly_20130430_zpsd5e38edf.png

Figure 4PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through April 2013.

As the graph shows, volume (length*width*height) hit another record minimum in June 2012.  Moreover, the volume remained far from normal for the past three years.  Conditions between -1 and -2 standard deviations are rare and conditions outside the -2 standard deviation threshold (see the line below the shaded area on the graph above) are incredibly rare: the chances of 3 of them occurring in 3 subsequent years under normal conditions are extraordinarily low (you have a better chance of winning the Powerball than this).  Hence my assessment that “normal” conditions in the Arctic shifted from what they were in the past few centuries; a new normal is developing.  Note further that the ice volume anomaly returned to near the -1 standard deviation envelope in early 2011, early 2012, and now early 2013.  In each of the previous two years, volume fell rapidly outside of the -2 standard deviation area with the return of summer.  That means that natural conditions are not the likely cause; rather, the more likely responsible cause is human influence.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Take a look at April’s areal extent time series data:

 photo N_stddev_timeseries_20130510_2_zpsba54ae72.png

Figure 5NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through late April 2013 compared with last four years’ data, climatological norm (dark gray line) and standard deviation envelope (light gray).

As you can see, this year’s extent (light blue curve)  remained at historically low levels throughout the winter, well below average values (thick gray curve), just as it did in the previous four winters.  Sea ice extent did something different this spring: the late season surge of ice formation seen in the  2009, 2010, and 2012 curves was not nearly as strong this year.  This graph also demonstrates that late-season ice formation surges have little effect on ice extent minima recorded in September each year.  The primary reason for this is the lack of ice depth due to previous year ice melt.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from March 24, 2013:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20130325_zpsbb795acd.png

Figure 6UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

And here is the corresponding graphic from May 10, 2013:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20130510_zps3bc7c6af.png

Figure 7UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130510.

Sea ice growth in the past month-and-a-half is within climatological norms.  However, there is more Antarctic sea ice today than there normally is on this calendar date.  The reason for this is the extra ice in the Weddell Sea (east of the Antarctic Peninsula that juts up toward South America).  This ice existed this past austral (Southern Hemisphere) summer due to an anomalous atmospheric circulation pattern: persistent high pressure west of the Weddell sea.  This pressure system caused winds that pushed the sea ice north and also moved cold Antarctic air over the Sea, which kept ice melt rate well below normal.  A similar mechanism helped sea ice form in the Bering Sea last winter.  Where did the anomalous winds come from?  We can again point to a climatic relationship.

The difference between the noticeable and significant long-term Arctic ice loss and relative lack of Antarctic ice loss is largely and somewhat confusingly due to the ozone depletion that took place over the southern continent in the 20th century.  This depletion has caused a colder southern polar stratosphere than it otherwise would be.  Why?  Because ozone heats the air around it after it absorbs UV radiation and re-radiates it to its environment.  Will less ozone, there is less stratospheric heating.  This process reinforced the polar vortex over the Antarctic Circle.  This is almost exactly the opposite dynamical condition than exists over the Arctic with the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation.  The southern polar vortex has helped keep cold, stormy weather in place over Antarctica that might not otherwise would have occurred to the same extent and intensity. The vortex and associated anomalous high pressure centers kept ice and cold air over places such as the Weddell Sea this year.

As the “ozone hole” continues to recover during this century, the effects of global warming will become more clear in this region, especially if ocean warming continues to melt sea-based Antarctic ice from below (subs. req’d).  The strong Antarctic polar vortex will likely weaken back to a more normal state and anomalous high pressure centers that keep ice flowing into the ocean will not form as often.  For now, we should perhaps consider the lack of global warming signal due to lack of ozone as relatively fortunate.  In the next few decades, we will have more than enough to contend with from Greenland ice sheet melt.  Were we to face a melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet at the same time, we would have to allocate many more resources.  Of course, in a few decades, we’re likely to face just such a situation.

Finally, here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early May:

 photo S_stddev_timeseries_20130510_zps6ac6fadc.png

Figure 8NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through early May 2013.


Given the lack of climate policy development to date, Arctic conditions will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.  The Arctic Ocean will soak up additional energy (heat) from the Sun due to lack of reflective sea ice each summer.  Additional energy in the climate system creates cascading and nonlinear effects throughout the system.  For instance, excess energy pushes the Arctic Oscillation to a more negative phase, which allows anomalously cold air to pour south over Northern Hemisphere land masses while warm air moves over the Arctic during the winter.  This in turn impacts weather patterns throughout the year across the mid-latitudes and prevents rapid ice growth where we want it.

More worrisome for the long-term is the heat that impacts land-based ice.  As glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea-level rise occurs.  Beyond the increasing rate of sea-level rise due to thermal expansion (excess energy, see above), storms have more water to push onshore as they move along coastlines.  We can continue to react to these developments as we’ve mostly done so far and allocate billions of dollars in relief funds because of all the human infrastructure lining our coasts.  Or we can be proactive, minimize future global effects, and reduce societal costs.  The choice remains ours.


Here are my State of Polar Sea Ice posts from March and February 2013. For further comparison, here is my State of Polar Sea Ice post from March 2012 and May 2012.


3 thoughts on “State of Polar Sea Ice – April 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain

  1. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – May 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain | Weatherdem's Weblog

  2. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – June 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain | Weatherdem's Weblog

  3. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – September 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Minimum and Antarctic Sea Maximum | Weatherdem's Weblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s